The village of Selworthy in Somerset, pictured above, is the kind of place usually described as “chocolate box”, and with its thatched cottages and whitewashed medieval church, it certainly looks the part.
But it was here, in the Nineteenth Century, that a traveller saw a ghostly black dog on Budleigh Hill, and was told later by the local sexton that a while before they had been carrying a coffin that way, and a handle worked itself loose; banging it in again with a stone, the nail pierced the corpse’s skull, and the spirit escaped to roam in the form of a dog, with “great fiery eyes as big as saucers”…
Tales of Black Dogs are common throughout England, and are often seen as harbingers of death or ill-fortune, or otherwise as the Devil in disguise.
One of the most celebrated sightings was in 1577, in the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk, when a terrible storm broke one Sunday morning, and a Black Dog or “Shuck” (derived from the Old English for “devil” or “fiend”, and also from a local dialect word meaning “shaggy” – a reference to the appearance of its coat) broke into the local churches, killing and maiming several people, and leaving the marks of its claws in the doors and stonework.
There have been several different accounts of this incident over the years (always a sign, according to Jacqueline Simpson, that a story has become folklore), and in Bungay especially the creature is now part of the village’s identity (its coat of arms features a picture of the Dog standing on forked lightning). One of the more recent versions is the song Black Shuck by rock band The Darkness…
Black Dogs are solitary, unlike those of the Wild Hunt – known as Yeth Hounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.
They ride as part of the Hunt, with ghostly horsemen, and like Black Dogs they are an ill omen, charging across the sky. Those who hunt on a Sunday, or are cruel and quick-tempered, may end up riding with them…
This was said to be the fate of a butcher’s boy from Rodhuish in Somerset.
A local bully, he tried to scare a young ploughboy who was at the blacksmith’s to mend the coulter on his plough.
He told him that the Devil would appear to him as he walked home over Croydon Hill, but this failed to frighten the lad, who set off regardless, carrying his mended coulter.
A while later he came running back, crying, “I’ve a-killed the Devil!”
The Devil, apparently, had appeared to him on Croydon Hill, and he thought he had struck him dead with his coulter. But it turned out that the butcher’s boy had dressed himself in the carcass of a dead bullock, and had leapt out at the ploughboy as he made his way home. And when the blacksmith and other men from the village went to see what had happened, they found only the bullock’s remains, its skull smashed, and no sign of the butcher’s boy.
Ever since it has been said that the Devil claimed him, and he rides over Croydon Hill with the Wild Hunt on stormy nights. A nice warning about what can happen to bullies!